by George Catlin

(First published in London in 1844)

LETTER--No. 20.


This day has been one of unusual mirth and amusement amongst the Mandans, and whether on account of some annual celebration or not, I am as yet unable to say, though I think such is the case; for these people have many days which, like this, are devoted to festivities and amusements.

Their lives, however, are lives of idleness and ease, and almost all their days and hours are spent in innocent amusements. Amongst a people who have no office hours to attend to -- no professions to study, and of whom but very little time is required in the chase, to supply their families with food, it would be strange if they did not practice many games and amusements, and also become exceedingly expert in them.

I have this day been a spectator of games and plays until I am fatigued with looking on; and also by lending a hand, which I have done; but with so little success as only to attract general observation, and as generally to excite the criticisms and laughter of the squaws and little children.

I have seen a fair exhibition of their archery this day, in a favorite amusement which they call the "game of the arrow", Where the young men who are the most distinguished in this exercise, assemble on the prairie at a little distance from the village, and having paid, each one, his "entrance-fee", such as a shield, a robe, a pipe, or other article, step forward in turn, shooting their arrows into the air, endeavoring to see who can get the greatest number flying in the air at one time, thrown from the same bow. For this, the number of eight or ten arrows are clenched in the left hand with the bow, and the first one which is thrown is elevated to such a degree as will enable it to remain the longest time possible in the air, and while it is flying, the others are discharged as rapidly as possible; and he who succeeds in getting the greatest number up at once, is "best", and takes the goods staked.

In looking on at this amusement, the spectator is surprised; not at the great distance to which the arrows are actually sent; but at the quickness of fixing them on the string, and discharging them in succession: which is no doubt, the result of great practice, and enables the most expert of them to get as many as eight arrows up before the first one reaches the ground.

For the successful use of the bow, as it is used through all this region of country on horseback, and that invariably at full speed, the great object of practice is to enable the bowman to draw the bow with suddenness and instant effect; and also to repeat the shots in the most rapid manner. As their game is killed from their horses' backs while at the swiftest rate -- and their enemies fought in the same way; and as the horse is the swiftest animal of the prairie, and always able to bring his rider alongside, within a few paces of his victim ; it will easily be seen that the Indian has little use in throwing his arrow more than a few paces; when he leans quite low on his horse's side, and drives it with astonishing force, capable of producing instant death to the buffalo, or any other animal in the country. The bows which are generally in use in these regions I have described in a former Letter, and the effects produced by them at the distance of a few paces is almost beyond relief, considering their length, which is not often over three,-and sometimes not exceeding two and a half feet. It can easily be seen, from what has been said, that the Indian has little use or object in throwing the arrow to any great distance. And as it is very seldOIIP that they can be seen shooting at a target, I doubt very much whether their skill in such practice would compare with that attained to in many parts of the civilized world; but with the same weapon, and dashing Forward at fullest speed on the wild horse, without the use of the rein, when the shot is required to be made with the most instantaneous effect, I scarcely think it possible that any people can be found more skilled, and capable of producing more deadly effects with the bow.

The horses which the Indians ride in this country are invariably the wild horses, which are found in great numbers on the prairies; and have, unquestionably, strayed from the Mexican borders, into which they were introduced by the Spanish invaders of that country; and now range and subsist themselves, in winter and summer, over the vast plains of prairie that stretch from the Mexican frontiers to Lake Winnipeg on the North, a distance of 3000 miles. These horses are all of small stature, of the pony order; but a very hardy and tough animal, being able to perform for the Indians a continual and essential service. They are taken with the laso, which is a long halter or thong, made of raw-hide, of some fifteen or twenty yards in length, and which the Indians throw with great dexterity; with a noose at one end of it, which drops over the head of the animal they wish to catch, whilst running at full speed -- when the Indian dismounts from his own horse, and holding to the end of the laso, choaks the animal down, and afterwards tames and converts him to his own use.

Scarcely a man in these regions is to be found, who is not the owner of one or more of these horses; and in many instances of eight, ten, or esen twenty, which he values as his own personal property.

The Indians are hard and cruel masters; and, added to their cruelties the sin that is familiar in the Christian world, of sporting with the liml and the lives of these noble animals. Horse-racing here, as in all mon enlightened communities, is one of the most exciting amusements, and or of the most extravagant modes of gambling.

I have been this day a spectator to scenes of this kind, which have bee enacted in abundance, on a course which they have, just back of the village; and although I never had the least taste for this cruel amusemer in my own country, yet, I must say, I have been not a little amused an pleased with the thrilling effect which these exciting scenes have produce amongst so wild and picturesque a group.

I have made a sketch of the ground and the group, as near as I could; shewing the manner of " starting" and coming out, "which vary a little from the customs of the Knowing world; but in other respecte I believe, a horse-race is the same all the world over.

Besides these, many have been the amusements of this day, to whicl I have been an eye-witness; and since writing the above, I have learnec the cause of this unusual expression of hilarity and mirth; which was no more nor less than the safe return of a small war-party, who had been al long out without any tidings having been received of them -- that they hac long since been looked upon as sacrificed to the fates of war and lost. This party was made up of the most distinguished and desperate youn! men of the tribe, who had sallied out against the Riccarees, and taken the most solemn oath amongst themselves never to return without achieving; victory. They had wandered long and faithfully about the country, following the trails of their enemy; when they were attacked by a numerou party, and lost several of their men and all their horses. In this condition to evade the scrutiny of their enemy, who were closely investing the natura route to their village; they took a circuitous range of the country, to enable them to return with their lives, to their village.

In this plight, it seems, I had dropped my little canoe alongside of them while descending from the Mouth of Yellow Stone to this place, not man weeks since; where they had bivouacked or halted, to smoke and consul on the best and safest mode of procedure. At the time of meeting them not knowing anything of their language, they were unable to communicate their condition to me, and more probably were afraid to do so even if they could have done it, from apprehension that we might have given some account of them to their enemies. I rested my canoe an hour or so with them during which time they treated us with an indifferent reserve, yet respectfully : and we passed on our way, without further information of them or their plan! than the sketch that I there made, and which I shall preservt and value as one of the most pleasing groups I ever have had the pleasun to see. Seated on their buffalo robes, which were spread upon the grass with their respective weapons laying about them, and lighting their pipes at a little fire which was kindled in the centre -- the chief or leader of the party, with his arms stacked behind him, and his long head-dress of war-eagles' quills and ermine falling down over his back, whilst he sat in a contemplative and almost desponding mood, was surely one of the most striking and beautiful illustrations of a natural hero that I ever looked upon.

These gallant fellows got safely home to their village, and the numerous expressions of joy for their return, which I have this day witnessed, have so much fatigued me that I write brief, and close my Letter here.

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